Teaching and Learning in a Project-Based World – #2 Traditional Projects vs. Project-Based Learning

Last Updated on July 26, 2022

In the first installment of our series on Project-Based Learning (PBL), we discussed why we should engage in this inquiry-based instructional approach. In this second part, we draw the line between the “traditional” perspective of projects and PBL.

Instruction-driven project vs project-driven instruction 

Student projects seem to be gaining ground as a key component in education and training. We can all agree this is a good thing. Educational curricula finally reach out to the real world and attempt meaningful connections with it, plus they seem to comply with the research results in the field. Practically speaking… how do we do it in our classrooms?

As educators, we deal with our students’ projects in many frameworks, but mostly because projects are requisite in the educational program we apply. This means that, more often than not, we supervise a project from a distance for an extended period (e.g. IB projects) or we dedicate one or two contact hours per week for a course labeled as a “project” (e.g. national curricula courses).

This is better than nothing, but still, this is far from what we call “Project-Based Learning” (PBL). PBL suggests quite a different teaching and learning approach, under the umbrella of inquiry-based instruction. Personal projects and “project-time” promote inquiry as well, in comparison to our traditional lecture-presentation mode, but they only work when used as a supplement to our usual instruction.

What we need is to turn this process upside-down: the project should be the instruction, and any teacher interventions should be the supplementary material. This might seem new and strange for classroom settings, but consider how real life works: we get on with our personal and vocational projects, and only every now and then do we get feedback on them. Do we have consultants and supervisors? Yes. But we get the job done; with lots of initiative, improvising, creativity… and mistakes.

This is the kind of ownership we should offer to our students too, to get them ready for tertiary education, work, and life. And to help them not only to learn, but to delve into the subject we teach and, at the same time, help us accomplish our curricular – and further – goals.

The delightful Project-Based Learning paradoxes

PBL is “a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks” (Markham, Larmer, & Ravitz, 2003).

We, as educators, have to organize, supervise, and assess these PBL lessons. From the very beginning of this very ambitious, but totally-worth-it project, we should be aware of two paradoxes tied closely to this approach.

The first paradox is that “less teacher talk requires more teacher time”, while the second is that “free-ranging self directed inquiry depends on a tight structure design” (Cornell & Clarke, 1999). But, I guess you suspected both.

Don’t let these paradoxes put you off – remember: bringing PBL in your classroom is your project. Like any other project, it has its challenges. Let’s start by exploring the successful techniques that expert teachers in PBL can teach us.

Ready to read part 3?

In PBL Post #3, we’ll share game-changing techniques for starting PBL on the right foot!

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Cornell, N. A., & Clarke, J. H. (1999). The Cost of Quality: Evaluating a Standards-Based Design Project. NASSP Bulletin, 83(603), 91–99.

Markham, T., Larmer, J., & Ravitz, J. L. (2003). Project based learning handbook : a guide to standards-focused project based learning for middle and high school teachers. Buck Institute for Education.

Pepy is a University and IB Diploma Programme Physics teacher, with an MA and Ph.D. in Science Education. She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in teachers' STEM education. As the Head of Research at 100mentors, she empowers educators to turn theory into practice with educational technology solutions.

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